Category: Theme Parks

The Garden Grill at Epcot Center

The Garden Grill at Epcot Center

One night on our trip to Disney World, we found ourselves with a dinner dilemma… we had planned to eat dinner at the Whispering Canyon Cafe. I use the term “planned” loosely — we didn’t have reservations and were advised by the concierge that we would, in fact, need them. I settled for making reservations to eat there several days later, but that still left me wondering where to eat that night.

I called the Disney dining number and The Garden Grill in Epcot’s Land Pavilion was recommended to me. I wasn’t very excited about it, but since it was a character meal I thought the kids would at least enjoy it.

There were two things that made this dining experience different from the others we had at Disney World. First, the restaurant rotates slowly while you are eating. This treats you to changing scenery from the Living with the Land attraction below. Second, some of the foods served are grown right there in the Living with the Land greenhouse.

Maybe it was just because my expectations were low, but it turned out to be one of the nicest meals we had at Disney World! The food, served family style, was very good, and the characters gave us LOTS of attention. We ate kind of late in the day, too, so by the time we were halfway through our meal, most of the restaurant’s other customers had left. Our waitress said we were her only table. She and the characters spent a lot of time chatting and playing with us.

We learned how to tell the difference between Chip and Dale (Chip has a small dark nose, alert eyes, and nice teeth… Dale has a large, redder nose with sleepy eyelids and messed up teeth)

and we learned how to make Goofy ears into Princess Leia style hair buns:

By the time we left the restaurant (and I do believe we were the last ones to leave!) we felt like Mickey, Pluto, Chip and Dale were old friends.

It was great fun!

The Garden Grill is located in the Land pavilion at Epcot Center, 1510 N Cove Rd, Orlando, FL 32830.  Telephone 407-560-6071.  Hours can vary and the restaurant is closed for about an hour in between breakfast and lunch, lunch and dinner.  Reservations are recommended and can be made up to 180 days in advance.

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Hidden Mickeys at Disney World

Hidden Mickeys at Disney World

When I was preparing for our trip to Disney World, I read about Hidden Mickeys and I couldn’t wait to go on a quest to find them all.

Well, I didn’t find them all, but I found a lot, and it was so much fun! How can you not enjoy something that combines the adventure of a scavenger hunt with the magical fun of Disney World?

A Hidden Mickey is a shape that resembles Mickey Mouse’s head and ears. This one was pretty obvious, if you happened to be looking at the gravel.

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Others are much more subtle and easy to miss. Some are a permanent arrangement; others change.

How did this all start? Well, when EPCOT Center was being designed in the late 1970s/early 1980s, it was intended to be an adult-oriented Disney park, complete with the option to buy alcoholic beverages. With the addition of alcohol, it was decided that no Disney characters would be seen within EPCOT Center. The Imagineers working on EPCOT took that as a special challenge, and found ways to work the Mickey Mouse symbol into their designs for the park. Disney changed their minds and now we see the Disney characters all over Epcot, but the Hidden Mickeys remain and in fact can be found in all of the Disney World parks, even newly constructed attractions.

On our second trip to Disney World we made a family competition of finding the Hidden Mickeys. It was a blast! Here are a few that we found and photographed.

A shop door in Morocco at Epcot

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An arrangement of sports equipment on a balcony at Hollywood Studios

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The drapes at All Star Movies resort:

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I highly recommend looking for Hidden Mickeys as a fun family activity – it’s something that even teenagers who think they are too old or too cool for Disney World will enjoy.  🙂

One Ocean (Orca Show) at Sea World Orlando

One Ocean (Orca Show) at Sea World Orlando

We almost felt guilty about going to see the orca show at Sea World, given that there had been so much bad press about them in recent years. But we had paid the full admission price to get in and I needed to sit for a spell, so we moseyed over to the Shamu Stadium.

Arriving early, we picked good seats that were not in the splash zone (although goodness knows a splash or two of cool water would have felt pretty good right about then).  One of the trainers was out with one of the orcas, and was making a big show of rubbing all over it and kissing on it. Either she was doing that under orders to make it known that Sea World staff puffy-pink-heart LOVES their orcas, or she needs to get out more. I’m hoping it’s the former and not the latter.

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Anyway, after I finished gawking at that awkward cross-species PDA, I noticed that the stadium had begun to fill up quite a bit. What followed was a semi-dramatic combination of video clips, voice over narration, and some amazing orca leaps and dives, along with the requisite splashing of the people in the front rows. The orcas are majestic creatures and despite their size, they made jumping out of the water look effortless and graceful.

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NOTE: The orca shows at Sea World are being phased out. By 2019, Sea World Orlando will no longer offer shows featuring the killer whales.

Sea World Orlando is located at 7007 Sea World Dr, Orlando, FL 32821. Telephone 1 (888) 800-5447. Park hours vary by season; check the web site or call for opening/closing times when planning your trip.

Dolphins @ Sea World Orlando

Dolphins @ Sea World Orlando

We loved seeing the dolphin shows at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, so of course we wanted to see the one at Sea World in Orlando too. It’s called Blue Horizons and it’s a “theatrical animal show.”

I’m not sure why they chose to go with a dramatic tale instead of just showing off the awesomeness of the dolphins, but I have to say I didn’t get it. The story is supposed to be about “a young girl named Marina as she discovers the secrets of the sea and sky in a mesmerizing blue world of adventure and wonder.” Whatever that means!  I just kept watching and waiting for the dolphins to do some amazing tricks.

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They did, as you can see above.  But in between amazing leaps and perky fin waving, there were a lot of costumes and acrobatics.  And occasionally, the two segments of the show combined.

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Things got a little freaky when, towards the end of the show, an acrobat came out dressed like this:

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That was a pretty stunning moment.  She twirled around in a way that made it look like she was flying, and then this happened:

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That I was not prepared for.  I tend to get a little jumpy when birds with big wings are flying right over my head.

So, if you’re headed to Sea World, my opinion is that Blue Horizons should not be on your short list of things to see, but rather on the “maybe I’ll check it out if I have time” list.

 

Sea World is located at  7007 Sea World Dr, Orlando, FL 32821.  Telephone 1-888-800-5447.  Hours vary by season; call or check the website when planning your visit.

The Birds of Sea World Orlando

The Birds of Sea World Orlando

I had never been to Sea World prior to our trip to Florida last March. My entire knowledge about the place was limited to (1) my husband had gone there when he was a kid and (2) they had received a lot of bad press about their orca attraction.

Despite the bad press, I wanted to go. We decided to dedicate one of our Orlando days to visiting Sea World.

One of the first animals we encountered was this handsome fellow:

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He was very friendly and very cooperative about posing for photos.

In between the water shows, we headed to the attraction called Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be like, but I think penguins are pretty cool, so we got in line. We waited and waited and waited. For over an hour, in the Florida heat. I thought about bailing out and going to do something else – anything else! – more than a few times. Eventually, though, we got to the doors and entered the attraction, where we proceeded to wait some more.  🙁

Eventually, we were asked to split into two lines – one for a WILD ride and one for a MILD ride. Due to my extreme tendency toward motion sickness, we chose mild. We got into this little buggy and proceeded on our way. Cartoon penguins looked out at us as we whizzed by. I remember thinking, I waited an hour for THIS?!?!?

But then…

We got to an area that had a window instead of a screen.  And there were so many penguins on the other side of that window I could hardly believe it. Live penguins! I couldn’t believe my eyes. But before I had a chance to even articulate my surprise, we started moving again.

And then…

Then, we were deposited onto the other side of that window, in the enclosure with the penguins themselves. We got out of the buggy thing and took it all in.

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It was amazing! All sorts of different penguin breeds, standing, swimming, grooming themselves, eating.

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Fortunately, they let us stay as long as we wanted to, because I didn’t want to leave. Can’t recommend this attraction enough!

Sea World Orlando is located at 7007 Sea World Dr, Orlando, FL 32821.  Telephone 1-888-800-5447.  Park hours vary by day and season.  Call or check the website for hours.

The Calmest, Quietest Spot in the Magic Kingdom

The Calmest, Quietest Spot in the Magic Kingdom

I didn’t even realize it was there the first time I went to Disney World. But in the course of planning our second trip, I found a brief mention of it in an online forum: Tom Sawyer Island. The person who commented about it said that it was an oasis of calm in an otherwise frenetic place.

Sign me up! I think even the biggest Disney World fans can find it to be a bit overwhelming at times. How could you not? There’s the heat, the crowds, the parents yelling at their children that they better have a good time, the kids who are crying and screaming because they are overwhelmed and exhausted, etc. Yes, I think an “oasis of calm” is exactly what the doctor ordered. So I made a point to check it out on our trip to the Magic Kingdom.

You get there by log raft from Frontier Land, and the first thing you see is this sign.

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From that point, you’re on your own to explore, reflect, rest… whatever suits you. There are lots of trees and shady spots to escape from the Florida heat. Dusty paths lead you to suspension bridges, caves, and and an old fort.

There is also Harper’s Mill, which has a water wheel.

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Inside the mill, you will see an homage to one of Disney’s earliest animated films, The Old Mill.

In Injun Joe’s Cave, you’ll find a rock formation that looks like a face. There is also a wooden bridge over what appears to be a bottomless pit. Outside the cave you will find a sign from Tom that says:

Do not wurry…Injun Joe aint been seen in thess parts for along time. Hiz cave is deeserted! p.s. if’n you want to maybe you could wurry just a little bit – Tom

Fort Langhorn was originally named Fort Sam Clemens, but was renamed for the release of the Disney movie “Tom and Huck.” It is outfitted with a blacksmith’s shop where guests can see an audio animatronic blacksmith. Above the shop, guests will find cannons, which do not actually fire. If guests want to find something that does shoot, they can climb up the watchtowers located in the fort where they can take up rifles and shoot (blanks) at passing boats.

There is a crooked bridge that leads to Potter’s Mill. Visitors can go inside the mill for a picturesque view of the Rivers of America and Frontier Land.

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Another location on the island, Old Scratch’s Mine, offers guests the chance to explore. After traveling through the dark passage and hearing bats chirp overhead, guests will come upon a large deposit of gems.

I have explored many old mines, but this un is the best ever! strange things happen in here so keep a sharp eye out and don’t stop for nuthin!

The appropriately named Scavenger Fort was designed for children under 12 years of age, and is essentially a playground that appears to be made from ship parts, lumber, and barrels.

For families traveling with younger children, a stop at Tom Sawyer Island is a must!

Tom Sawyer Island is located in Frontier Land at the Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World.

Pirates of the Caribbean @ Disney World

Pirates of the Caribbean @ Disney World

The blockbuster movie “Pirates of the Caribbean” was rooted in a Disneyland attraction that first opened in 1967. The attraction also opened at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in 1973. It tells the story of a band of pirates and their troubles and exploits, which guests view from a boat ride.

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The similarities between the ride and the movie can best be summed up like this:

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Do you remember that scene in the movie? Imprisoned pirates are trying to convince a dog to bring them the keys.

For the most part, the ride is pretty cheesy but fun, and it has been updated to include characters from the Pirates movies. You’ll see Captain Barbosa aboard the ship:

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Then a little farther along, you will see Jack Sparrow trying to blend in amidst a pile of ransacked belongings.

 

And of course, there are plenty scenes of drunken revelry.

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Um, you might want to get that foot looked at, sir.

Then you get one last glimpse of Jack Sparrow before exiting the ride.

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It’s a fun ride and I would definitely recommend it for anyone who loves pirates in general or the Pirates of the Caribbean movies in particular.

Pirates of the Caribbean is located in the Adventure Land section of Magic Kingdom at DisneyWorld.  

Going on Safari, Disney Style

Going on Safari, Disney Style

I would love to go on a real African safari someday. Until that happens, though, the next best thing is the Kilimanjaro Safari ride at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It was hands down my favorite thing in Animal Kingdom (although Kali River Rapids was a very close second).

The queuing area is decorated like an African wildlife reserve, and if you pay close attention, you may see some news items about poachers in the area who are targeting elephants. When you board your safari vehicle, you set off to explore the 110 acre reserve more fully. Your driver will act as a tour guide on the ride, pointing out various types of landscapes and the animals who call them home.

The landscape included some baobab trees, also called upside down trees because it looks like the roots are on the top.  I love this shot I got with the sun right behind one.

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There are over 30 different species of animals there, from A (antelope) to Z (zebra). Because of the way the animals move around on the reserve, you will probably see something different each time you go on this safari. When we went, we got a fairly up-close look at a black rhino:

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And we saw a giraffe as well:

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Plus a wildebeest or three:

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On the other hand, the big cats (cheetah and lion) were either absent or fully committed to lying in a shady spot and not entertaining the tourists. Spoil sports.

The ride lasts close to 20 minutes, and you’ll be sitting the whole time. I highly recommend going on the safari when you visit Animal Kingdom. It’s appropriate for any age, and Fast Pass + is offered.

The Kilimanjaro Safari Ride is in the Animal Kingdom Park in Walt Disney World, located at 2901 Osceola Pkwy, Orlando, FL 32830. Telephone 407- 939-5277. Park hours vary by day and season; check before planning your visit.

Toy Story Mania at Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Toy Story Mania at Disney’s Hollywood Studios

On our last trip to Disney World, we practically made a bee line for the Toy Story Mania ride/attraction as soon as we arrived at Hollywood Studios. Not only is Toy Story one of our most favorite Disney*Pixar movies, we had heard so many good things about how much fun this (still relatively new) attraction was.

We had also heard about how dreadfully long the lines were. Fortunately, this attraction does offer Fast Pass + and if my experience is any indication, you might need it. However, we honestly did not mind standing in line too much because the queuing area is so brilliantly decorated! Imagine you are shrunk to the size of a green army man and dropped inside a young child’s toy box. That’s what it looks like.

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Tinkertoys, dominos, crayons, alphabet blocks, playing cards, a checkerboard… and of course, this childhood favorite:

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But that was just the beginning! As we moved along, we were reminded of some toys from my youth. First, the View Master:

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And when I saw the giant Spin Art I think I may have squealed with glee:

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We waited in line for close to an hour and I think it was one of the very few times that I didn’t mind waiting.

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When we finally got out of the toy box – er, queuing area – the fun continued. We were given 3D glasses and seated as the ride began. What followed were five different fast-paced games featuring the characters from the Toy Story movies. Your buggy is equipped with a laser gun that you have to point and shoot at different objects, both stationery and moving. Some of the objects, when hit, will surprise you with a 4D effect like a spray of water or a blast of air.

We had so much fun on this ride! Definitely recommended for kids of all ages, even the grown up ones.  😉

Toy Story Mania is located  in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, 351 S Studio Dr, Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830. Telephone 407-939-5277. Park hours vary by day/season.

Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse at Disney World

Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse at Disney World

The first time I went to Disney World, I was surprised that they had a Swiss Family Robinson attraction. After all, the movie first came out in 1960. I thought the treehouse was pretty cool, but had no idea how faithful it was to the movie because I had never seen the movie. When we were planning our second trip to Disney World nearly four years later, I made sure we watched the movie before we went.

Surprisingly, we all loved the movie. Even my daughter, who had a low tolerance for anything that wasn’t a cartoon.

In the movie, a family on their way to New Guinea is chased by pirates into a storm. The captain and crew abandon the ship, leaving the family shipwrecked off an uninhabited island. Father and his two eldest sons Fritz and Ernst salvage as much as they can from the wreck including livestock, tools, and even an organ. The three men construct a tree house home on the island and build inventions to provide modern amenities to the family such as drawing water and preserving food. The rest of the story involves the rescue of a teen named Bertie, fighting off pirates, two brothers vying for the affections of a girl, and sticking together as a family.

With that perspective, we were able to visit the Swiss Family Treehouse in the Magic Kingdom with a whole new appreciation for it.

For instance, here’s the giant clam shell that was converted into a wash basin.

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And the sleeping quarters of some family members.

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And the father’s desk.

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Note the chair made of rattan.

I highly recommend watching the 1960 Walt Disney film version of Swiss Family Robinson before heading to Disney World.  Then, when you get there, be sure to go through the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse which is, amazingly, still open.  You will get so much more out of it that way.  (Also, it’s a really good movie!)

The Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse is located in the Adventureland section of the Magic Kingdom Park of Walt Disney World. Magic Kingdom is located at 1180 Seven Seas Dr, Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830. Telephone 407-939-5277. Open daily, but hours vary by day and season.